UPDATE 1/29/14 @ 8:30 p.m.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Businesses in the Kanawha Valley say they’ve taken a financial hit, along with losing customers from the water contamination crisis.
One hotel that stayed open during the “Do Not Use” order, serving pre-prepared food and washing its laundry elsewhere, has been fielding calls from concerned guests.
“Everybody's concerned if the water's contaminated, if it's safe to drink, to shower, brush their teeth,” Amanda Lovejoy said. “Also they ask us if we take a shower in it.”
Lovejoy works at the front desk of the Holiday Inn Express at the Charleston Civic Center. She said she tries to ease customers’ concerns by telling them the water has been checked by the health department and is safe.
“We are also offering bottled water, though, just if they choose to use that just to brush their teeth or make their coffee in the morning or whatever it may be,” Lovejoy said. “It's kind of something we just have to go through every day and just ease their minds, let them know it's OK.”
The Holiday Inn Express is not the only business dealing with what Charleston Mayor Danny Jones calls a “tremendous public relations problem.”
“Getting people to schedule meetings here, getting people to come here for leisure when we're just getting into spring and summer, our high season for people coming in on the weekends,” Alisa Bailey, president of the Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.
Bailey said the CVB has reached out to similar organizations in the Gulf Shore, asking for advice on how to deal with this crisis from the groups that handled these situations after Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.
“They also said we have to be honest, you know, so when the spills were happening, when the tar balls were washing up on shore, they just said, ‘You've got to tell the people like it is,’” Bailey said. “’Come on back, come see for yourself’ was their campaign and I think that Charleston needs to take something out of that playbook.”
Jones said he hoped he and others in the Kanawha Valley would be able to get past this crisis.
“I'm very emotional about it and it's very hurtful, and I want to reach a point where we can get past,” Jones said. “The people that consume the water […] have to believe that the water's OK and I’m hoping they will.”
Jones also told WSAZ.com he believed this contamination crisis would affect every county in West Virginia by hurting its tourism and economic prospects. Rusty Eaton of the Holiday Inn Express said he and his staff were looking ahead to the future, trying to grasp the long-term effect of this spill.
“It was pretty devastating for us. I mean, we lost business immediately following the announcement that the water was contaminated. We saw our occupancy cut in half that night,” Eaton said. “[As for] the residual impact for the future, it's hard to tell. I mean, we're still having cancellations even today, people that don't want to come to the Valley because of the water.”
“The damage to our brand is really our biggest concern at the Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Bailey said, noting that groups in the Kanawha Valley would have to launch a major marketing campaign. “Charleston's going to come back. We're going to be clean, stronger than ever.”
The CVB tells WSAZ.com that it has surveyed a dozen businesses in Charleston so far and that those businesses have lost approximately $1 million from the chemical spill. To see the full effect of the spill, Bailey said those numbers would have to be multiplied by hundreds.
Keep clicking on WSAZ.com for the latest on this story.
However, the water crisis is costing local businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars.
During a regular scheduled meeting, the Charleston Visitors Bureau talked about the impact on local businesses and conferences in the area.
The CVB sent restaurants and hotels in Charleston a survey to fill out that allowed them to list how they were impacted by the water crisis.
Board members say so far only 12 have replied. Their losses are reported at more than a $1M.
The CVB will also help the city recoup some of those losses through a lawsuit. Charleston Mayor, Danny Jones told the board the city has hired two law firms.
Company officials at Freedom Industries says about 10,000 gallons of the chemical MCHM leaked out of a storage tank at its facility near Charleston on January 9. The MCHM was mixed with another chemical call PPH.
The chemicals got into the Elk River and then into the Kanawha Valley water treatment plant for West Virginia American Water. Thousands of people in nine counties were under a "do not use" order until tests were found that the water was safe to use and drink.
Recently, the water company announced non-detectable or very low levels of MCHM are still being found during the testing process. Water testing is expected to continue through this week.
CVB board members say once the all clear is given and restaurants are able to get back to normal they will begin promoting it.